“I loved soundtrack albums when I was a kid, my brother had a lot of them.”
It was 2021, and Kenny Loggins was reflecting on his history with soundtracks, the aspect of his lengthy career that will be his lasting legacy. As a boy, he had been blown away by albums like King of Kings, in which the songs reflected the different characters’ personalities. “It was kind of early to be steeped in such things, but making music for movies became a childhood dream,” he continued. “A lot of people now ask me why doesn’t music in movies have the impact that it once did. I think part of it was the novelty of it at that time — music was being written for the movie, now it’s not. Now [films] have a music director and they have a list of young, cool acts that they want to put in the film, but the music isn’t written for that movie or the emotion.”
Today, Loggins releases his memoir Still Alright, which includes “intimate stories behind his five-decade career as a legendary songwriter and pop icon.” It’s an unexpectedly perfect time for the 74-year-old musician to be releasing his autobiography, his profile boosted recently by the success of Top Gun: Maverick, which has helped remind people (if they needed reminding) how crucial his songs “Danger Zone” and “Playing With the Boys” were to the original film. Those were big for him, as were “Footloose” and “Meet Me Half Way” from other movies, but his first major soundtrack smash not only paved the way for his success in the field but was also the first significant hit from a comedy, creating a new musical niche. It’s hard to think of Caddyshack without “I’m Alright,” and likewise it’s hard to think of the songs that emerged in the wake of its success — tracks like “Holiday Road” and “Ghostbusters” — without Loggins getting there first.
Starting out as a songwriter-for-hire in the early 1970s, he composed tunes for others, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Eventually teaming up with former Buffalo Springfield member Jim Messina, Loggins got his first taste of stardom: Loggins and Messina weren’t critical favorites, but their soft-rock sound fit in perfectly with the laid-back Laurel Canyon vibe that was growing in popularity. “He had a voice, he could sing anything that he wanted to,” Messina once said of his former collaborator. “It was all fun for him. I liked his spirit.”
But after a few years of hit records — including “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” which was later covered by Poison — Loggins focused his energies on a solo career. One of his songs, “I Believe in Love,” had been featured in the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born, and the following year he put out his first solo disc, Celebrate Me Home. Loggins got into the Top 10 with 1978’s “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend,’” a duet with Stevie Nicks, and won a Song of the Year Grammy for co-writing “What a Fool Believes,” which was massive for the Doobie Brothers. (He got a Grammy for his solo song “This Is It” as well, which he also co-wrote with Doobie Brothers co-founder Michael McDonald.) But Loggins’ future riches were assured thanks to Jon Peters, who had produced A Star Is Born and been in a relationship with its star Barbra Streisand, who sang “I Believe in Love.”
“[At that time] most pop music was not in movies,” Loggins said in 2014. “It was a brand-new thought. We wondered if pop music would even work in movies. Jon Peters left Barbra Streisand and went solo, and the first movie that he produced was Caddyshack, and he knew that it had to be a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. He was young enough to get that idea. So he called me up, because of my relationship with he and Barbra for A Star is Born.”
In the late 1970s, Hollywood was starting to embrace the idea of the blockbuster, with films like Jaws and Star Wars suggesting how high the commercial ceiling could be. But a specific kind of broad, dude-friendly comedy was also getting huge, propelled by 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House. Suddenly, John Belushi was a movie star, and he and anything associated with Saturday Night Live became a big deal. In the summer of 1980, he’d return to theaters with The Blues Brothers, and about a month later, a goofy, anarchic golf comedy called Caddyshack debuted.
Messy and epochal, Caddyshack told the story of Danny (Michael O’Keefe), a working-class teenager who needs money for college, hoping that his job as a caddie will allow him to rub elbows with the city’s elite, like the snobby Judge Smails (Ted Knight). The film is filled with other colorful characters, including Bill Murray’s Carl Spackler, the club’s eccentric groundskeeper determined to take out a pesky gopher, and Ty Webb, a smart-ass golfer who is insufferable because he is played by Chevy Chase. Scatologicial and sex jokes intermingle, building off Animal House’s proudly rude-and-crude attitude and setting the stage for future comedies like Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Ghostbusters.
Famously, Caddyshack was chaotically constructed. “We didn’t have a movie,” Peters later admitted. “We had a bunch of scenes that didn’t play together. So we met with George Lucas and his visual effects company and we shot more stuff with the gopher to tie the whole thing together. When we saw the gopher in, I felt it was going to be a giant hit.” To help emphasize the film’s impudent attitude, Peters wanted rock songs that would appeal to younger viewers, the same audience that had made Animal House a phenomenon. So Peters asked Loggins if he’d give the movie a look.
“I was driving home from L.A., stopped at this studio and saw a rough cut,” Loggins told American Songwriter. “It had no ending and no gopher. I laughed my ass off. It was hilarious.”
With rough cuts, filmmakers will often include popular songs that are models for the kind of music they ultimately want in their movie. And with Caddyshack, one of those so-called temp tracks gave Loggins the inspiration he needed. “The opening scene of the movie was Danny, the lead character, riding his bicycle through a suburb,” Loggins said. “It looks really banal but the music that they put behind it was ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ by Bob Dylan. From that, I got the idea they wanted to portray him as a bit of a rebel, even though he had not yet achieved that particular character. I figured I wanted to write something that expressed that rebellious nature the way the director had tried to express it in his rough cut.” Soon, some lyrics came to mind: ‘I’m alright / Nobody worry ‘bout me / Why you got to give me a fight?’”
“I’m Alright” wasn’t aspiring to do anything more than be a good-time anthem — if it’s rebellious, it’s more in a “Let me live my life, bro” way than, say, a fiery political critique in the style of the Clash or other punk bands of the era. But Loggins’ gift for easily accessible melodies and sentiments was well-suited for “I’m Alright,” perfectly capturing the summery vibe of Caddyshack, which opened in July of 1980. The song felt like the ideal backdrop for a pool party or barbeque.
Not counting songs Loggins had written (or co-written) for others, “I’m Alright” was his third Top 10 hit, peaking at No. 7. But just as importantly, it helped establish the idea of the comedy soundtrack song. Dramas like Saturday Night Fever and musicals such as Grease (based on the Broadway sensation) had seen their soundtrack albums go to the top of the charts, while The Graduate had boosted the profile of Simon & Garfunkel, but “I’m Alright” was something new: an original song written for a broad comedy that was huge on the radio, essentially becoming the movie’s aural signature. And that clued producers into thinking of including fun, catchy songs in their comedies. The Blues Brothers had featured new versions of classic songs, but soon you had Lindsey Buckingham doing a new song for Vacation, Ray Parker Jr. crafting the title tune for Ghostbusters and Huey Lewis and the News enjoying their first No. 1 with “The Power of Love” in Back to the Future. Turns out, funny movies could have hit singles.
Of course, this was part of a larger trend in the 1980s, when Hollywood repeatedly cashed in on blockbusters that sported boisterous rockers and epic power ballads. Prince was never bigger than on Purple Rain — the movie and the album — while Simple Minds defined the moody tenor of John Hughes’ teen films with “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” (In fact, during the 1980s and 1990s, the song of the summer was often from a movie soundtrack.) But Loggins was front and center during this movement, becoming the unofficial master of the artform. “I’m Alright” helped birth the era, but he only got more successful from there. Shortly after writing the Caddyshack track, he got a call from “one of my best friends, Dean Pitchford, he had been a lyric collaborator with me, on songs on my own album. He wrote a screenplay called Footloose, and as a favor to him, I wrote [a] couple of songs for the screenplay. That turned out to be a favor for me.”
One of those tunes was “Footloose,” which went to No. 1 and earned a Best Original Song Oscar nomination. Soon after, he was recruited to sing “Danger Zone,” the theme for Top Gun, which hit No. 2. (Loggins co-wrote another hit, “Playing With the Boys,” now commonly known as “The Soundtrack to That Incredible, Homoerotic Beach Volleyball Scene.”) Loggins kept going from there, recording smashes for Over the Top and Caddyshack II, and he continued to release solo albums in-between. But the soundtrack songs were the ones that made him famous, and he always understood the crucial difference between making songs for himself and songs for blockbusters.
“[W]hen I’m writing for an album, I’m much more introspective,” he said last year. “I’m thinking about what I can write that can emotionally connect with whoever is listening, whereas when I’m writing for a film, I’m more about dropping into the character and, for that film, thinking about what enhances the emotion of a particular scene and the overall impact of the movie.”
MTV was crucial in catapulting so many photogenic stars in the 1980s, but the station also helped popularize the marriage of image and song, merging kinetic movement and emphatic music. Soon, Hollywood was emulating the approach, setting the stage for films like Flashdance, Footloose and Top Gun, which sometimes seemed to contain mini-music videos within their narratives. Loggins’ career predated the MTV age, but he understood the power of this combination, his songs going for the jugular at a time when studio films were more and more seeking pure sensation. Talking about Footloose, Loggins told the Library of Congress in 2021, “The film is basically a musical — which no one ever does anymore — and rock was not being used much in movies then. Then the Kevin Bacon dance clip, dancing to the song, was released to MTV and it was perfect and great synergy. It cemented the movie and the music — one infuses the other. You can’t hear the song today and not see that scene in your head.”
That was true for so many of Loggins’ soundtrack hits — and so many of the soundtrack hits of the 1980s and 1990s. Whether it was “Eye of the Tiger” or “Take My Breath Away” or “Men in Black,” the songs weren’t just earworms — they were ads, either getting you to see the movie or, after you’d seen it, a reminder of what you had liked about it. Loggins’ summer smashes were especially affecting because they became a sonic bookmark for the warm-weather season. Starting with “I’m Alright,” Loggins didn’t just embody a particular character — he gave voice to specific emotions, capturing the euphoria and freedom of summer. Now implanted in your subconscious, those songs evoke summers of the past, a wistful memory of happier, kickback times. You can practically smell the sunscreen when you flip on Loggins’ greatest hits.
Trends, like summers, don’t last, though. As the 1980s came to a close, Loggins was still delivering soundtrack hits, but they tended toward the generic. His “Nobody’s Fool” from 1988’s Caddyshack II went Top 10, although it’s evaporated from the culture since. (“It’s very much influenced by Foreigner,” he recently said, admitting he never bothered watching the accompanying film.) In 1996, he released “For the First Time,” a love song he sang for the rom-com One Fine Day, which got nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. But in the last two decades, he hasn’t captured the zeitgeist in the same way, although he did record a new version of “Danger Zone” for Top Gun: Maverick, which the filmmakers rejected. “[I wanted to] make a 5.0 version that would wrap around the audience,” Loggins told Entertainment Weekly. “But Tom Cruise really wanted to conjure up the original version, the original feeling. So in the long run, it turned out to be the old track coming back.”
That decision seems appropriate: People love Kenny Loggins for the fond reminiscences he unwittingly scored in all our lives, not for new sounds he might generate. I can attest to this firsthand. Back in the summer of 2019, I was at a St. Louis Cardinals/San Francisco Giants game in the Bay Area, discovering when I got to Oracle Park that it was “Top Gun Day.” Not only was Loggins, who lives in Santa Barbara, there to sing the National Anthem, he stayed afterward to take in some of the game. Fans treated him like royalty, and he happily and good-naturedly basked in their adoration. That’s a pretty great life.
The man is a product of a bygone age. One of the pioneers of yacht rock, he feels like a musical relic, but he’s also the ruler of a forgotten kingdom, a faraway land when studios had artists record original songs for their movies in the hopes that they would be as big as the films themselves. Such a world hardly exists anymore. In Loggins’ memoir, he explains how he envisioned Caddyshack’s main character Danny when he was writing “I’m Alright”: “He spends most of the movie trying to fit in with the country club scene, but by the end he decides to thumb his nose at the whole idea and chooses another path for himself.”
“I’m Alright” blazed its own trail, too. Blast it this summer in Loggins’ honor.